Over the contemplative chords of a piano, a violin sighs. Quietly, as if in disbelief, swells of voices emerge:
“Officers, why do you have your guns out?”
Later, they scream as one:
“I don’t have a gun. Stop!”
And finally, a strangled, fading plea:
“I can’t breathe.”
These are the last words uttered by unarmed black men before they were shot and killed by police, before their names became a rallying cry, a line in a history book, a prayer: Kenneth Chamberlain. Michael Brown. Eric Garner.
Five years ago, a young black composer named Joel Thompson sat alone and pondered these last words. The fruits of his grief became the “Seven Last Words of the Unarmed,” a haunting choral work that sets to music the final words of seven black men and boys: Kenneth Chamberlain, Trayvon Martin, Amadou Diallo, Michael Brown, Oscar Grant, John Crawford and Eric Garner. Almost all of them were killed in confrontations with police.
“After Michael Brown and Eric Garner were killed in 2014, I wrote it as a way to process my feelings,” Thompson said. “No piece I’ve ever written since will be as vulnerable, because I didn’t expect anyone to see it.”
The piece caused a stir when it premiered in 2015, back when the Black Lives Matter movement was a new and controversial idea. Now, the phrase is painted on major streets across America and printed on countless protest signs as the country contends with yet another litany of black lives lost to police violence. A lot has changed. And yet, the fact the work still resonates shows how much has stayed the same.
No one was supposed to hear it
When the 20-minute work premiered in 2015, it was occasionally met with anger. At one performance, people ripped up their programs and stormed out of the theater. Classical music patrons and faculty at the University of Michigan, where the piece was first performed, were abuzz with indignation.
Why, they mused, would you combine something as seemingly at odds as traditional choral music and the Black Lives Matter movement?
Here’s the secret: Thompson didn’t write it for attention, or even to make a political statement. He didn’t think it would be performed at all.
It began, simply, as a private expression of his grief.
He thought of the Seven Last Words of Christ, a liturgical structure that represents the final phrases Jesus uttered before dying on the cross. They’re intensely human: “My God, why have you forsaken me?” “I’m thirsty.” “It is finished.”
In this parallel, Thompson saw the humanity of these seven people. He saw the confusion of 68-year-old Kenneth Chamberlain saying “Officers, why do you have your guns out?” as police burst through his front door in 2011. He saw the hopefulness of Guinean immigrant Amadou Diallo, who left a voice mail saying “Mom’ I’m going to college,” minutes before he was shot by plainclothes police officers in 1999.
As he put their words to music, he interjected an old, medieval melody, L’homme armé, “The Armed Man.”
L’homme armé doibt on doubter.
The armed man should be feared.
Thompson finished the piece in the first weeks of 2015 and put it away, “like I did the rest of my pieces,” he said.
That could have been the end of it. But a few months later, Freddie Gray died in the back of a police car in Baltimore, and the words came rushing back.
“It was the same feelings all over again,” Thompson said. “And I figured, maybe if I perform it, maybe I would feel like I am doing something about this crisis.”
The work inspired backlash – and unity
Usually, when a composer has a piece they would like to put out to the masses, they need connections to make it happen. They need a patron, musicians, a venue, and the time and money to pull it off.
For Thompson, this opportunity came in the form of Dr. Eugene Rogers, the Grammy Award-winning director of choral activities at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance
An acquaintance sent him the piece, and at first, Rogers tried to ignore it. The subject matter was too raw, and since some people could see it as divisive, he knew it would be a hard sell.
One listen changed his mind.
“It moved me so personally, as an African-American man,” said Rogers, who was the director of the legendary U-M Men’s Glee Club at the time. “I knew I had to present this piece.”
Although some were hard to convince at first, he got others at the university to support the project by appealing to the same thing Thompson tried to convey in his music: The universal humanity of the men it honors.
Eventually, the school produced a documentary about the piece that told the stories of the men in greater detail and featured several of their families.
The U-M Men’s Glee Blub performed it. An orchestral accompaniment was commissioned. Rogers took the piece on tour, and versions were performed by the Tallahassee Symphony and the Morehouse Men’s Glee Club.
In recent weeks, Rogers and Thompson have been overwhelmed by renewed interest.
Legendary institutions like Carnegie Hall have featured videos of the work, and some have reached out to organize their own performances.
“It really has become classical music’s response to this,” Rogers says.
He thinks people are moved by it for the same reason people were moved by the death of George Floyd: The sheer humanity of it. You can’t look away. You can’t stop hearing those last words in your head. That dying man could have been your father, your friend, your teacher. It could have been you.
“This is the reason that this piece is resonating now. It’s because people are seeing beyond the headlines and the narratives. It’s a universal cry from all ages, all races. They are seeing these men as human beings who deserve to be treated as more.”
Thompson is more reserved about the attention. He worries that, in some cases, it may be more performative than substantial.
“I find more hope in hearing what individual people have to say about it, and what emotions they had, rather than the powers-that-be promoting it,” he says.
After all, classical music has its own shortcomings to answer for.
A young, black composer faces an old, white genre
Being a young black man in the world of classical music is to be outnumbered on several fronts.
In his career, Thompson has experienced a lot of the institutional prejudice that has kept the genre so exclusive for so long. He favors choral performance and composition, but almost gave up on composing altogether after he was laughed at on stage during a music festival by a white conductor.
After the release of “Seven Last Words of the Unarmed,” Thompson, who is a very private person, was shielded from the worst of the criticism.
“But from what I gather,” he said, “There was this idea of classical music not being an appropriate space to convey such a political message.”
That statement should infuriate any classical music lover.
Though traditionally old, white and Eurocentric, classical music as a broad genre has been a tool of resistance and political criticism for as long as hands have plucked strings and mouths have sung.
From a defiant Holocaust-era production of Verdi’s Requiem in the ghetto of Terezín, to Russian composers persecuted and forced into exile for their commentary on Stalin’s reign, all the way back to subversive lutenists in the courts of Europe, there has never been a time when some composer, somewhere, wasn’t challenging power or upending the status quo.
“There’s so much potential for classical music to be as universal as many of its strongest proponents claim,” Thompson says. “I have to hold on to that belief.”
Surveying the state of the genre now, he’s encouraged by what he sees: People of all races and cultures adding their voices to the age-old classical conversation.
“There’s a lot of energy among these young people, and a lot of inspiration about using this genre of music that we love so much to speak to present day issues,” he says. “They are using this music as a way to address their present circumstance.”
But five years later, it’s still the same old song
Though Thompson and Rogers are heartened by the amount of attention the piece is getting now, there is also something deeply disheartening about the fact it still feels so relevant.
“After we initially performed it, it was [Thompson’s] dream that he never had to perform this piece again,” Rodgers says.
Instead, Thompson muses he could have easily written several more collections of “Last Words” since 2015, for all of the black lives that continue to be snuffed out by prejudice and police violence.
It’s not lost on him, either, that six years after Eric Garner’s dying phrase became a cry for justice, George Floyd uttered the same exact words as a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck: “I can’t breathe.”
Thompson won’t revisit the project that has become such a unique touchstone in these difficult times. He could never recreate the private and complex emotions that led to its conception. In fact, it’s painful when people ask.
Instead, he’s focusing on other works that he hopes illuminate black humanity in a different way. Perhaps, he says, he can introduce some joy to mitigate all the darkness.
“I want to create music that allows everyone to access their humanity,” he says. “When music allows you to see yourself, when music allows you to listen to yourself, I think there’s a common thread.”
It’s that common thread he holds on to, in hopes that when united by music, people can come together and sing a different tune.